Over the last few weeks, the Economic Development Corporation (EDC), Department of Transportation (DOT), and a team of consultants have hosted public workshops in each of the five community districts served by the planned light rail.
According to Rebecca Gafvert, vice president of Neighborhood Strategies at EDC, the workshops are part of a larger engagement strategy.
“We hadn’t talked to the community in a little while, so we wanted to reopen that conversation, cast as wide a net as we could, bring everyone in and remind them what the project is,” she said. “A lot of this is about education and answering questions.”
In particular, Gafvert said, city officials wanted to get more feedback about possible routes for the BQX. Right now, the route is just a “dotted line on a map.”
They also want to hear about alternatives, she said, including potentially using bus rapid transit for the waterfront route. That analysis will also be conducted as part of the environmental impact statement.
“We want to narrow the field down to what’s really feasible and what people want to see,” she said.
Last Tuesday, hundreds of residents attended the workshop at Bushwick Inlet Park on Kent Avenue. Poster boards with details about the project were placed throughout the main gathering room.
BQX project staff were on hand to answer questions and take notes. Attendees also participated in tabletop exercises about routes.
Gafvert said the purpose of the workshops was to not only inform residents about the project, but also to dispel rumors and myths about the light rail.
“We’re hearing that people are curious,” she said. “People want to know exactly how this is going to affect their neighborhood.”
EDC officials heard similar concerns when they presented the project details to the local community board. Gafvert said everyone was interested in how the streetcar would affect the streets it runs on.
“It’s more concerns about how this really gets operationalized on the street,” she added. “That’s what we hear across the board.”
After the last workshop at CUNY Law School on March 10, the BQX team will take all of the feedback, digest it and figure out who else to talk to, Gafvert said. They will deliver the comments to their engineering and consultant teams, who will then draft a scope of work for the environmental impact statement.
The draft scope will define the project and the proposed route, which Gafvert anticipates will change slightly based on feedback and additional engineering and planning work. It will also describe the alternatives to the streetcar, which will be studied in the EIS.
Altogether, it takes about one year between the draft scope of work and when the draft EIS is released, Gafvert said. Following another period of public comment and review, city officials would then release a final EIS.
“The goal is to wrap up the entire environmental review process by late 2021,” she said.
Renae Reynolds, a transportation planner for the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, said at face value the BQX could be seen as a good idea.
But upon further examination of “value capture,” the initial method that the city proposed to pay for the streetcar through increased property tax revenue, Reynolds said that’s when “you get to the heart of the matter.”
“The project is something that is being pushed by developers, by real estate investment interests,” she said. “It’s being promoted as the most equitable way to connect people north and south from Brooklyn to Queens, but that’s not true.”
Reynolds added that if government officials truly wanted a “transit equalizer,” they would invest in improving buses, subways and the infrastructure that already exists.
Another major critique she had of the project was that it’s not climate resilient. Reynolds said the BQX is a “fixed-rail system” along a coastal waterfront that has already proven to be vulnerable to climate change events like Hurricane Sandy.
She’s also heard concerns about how the project would impact both commercial and residential rents along the area.
“They’re concerned about what their future is and who this project is being built for,” Reynolds said. “To build something like this, we think, is entirely irresponsible.”
Reynolds said she has attended each of the BQX public workshops, and she has seen more and more opposition to the project.
At one point during the Williamsburg workshop, opponents of the BQX asked those in the gathering room to raise their hands if they were against the light rail project. A majority of those in the room put their hands in the air.
They also chanted in unison, calling the streetcar a “developer boondoggle.”
“We’re starting to see the tension building as people realize EDC is not listening to us,” Reynolds said.
The transportation planner added that the next step for BQX opponents is getting all of their voices connected. She noted that there will be a scoping hearing in the coming months, so they have to be prepared for that.
“We have to make sure that community voices that are against this project are at that hearing,” she added, “and that we get the truth out about what this project is and what it will mean for the residents who will be most impacted by it.”
But not all those in attendance were against the project. Williamsburg resident Daniel Hyman said he’s in favor of the BQX because he’s an advocate for better transit opportunities along the waterfront, as well as reducing personal car use in the city.
He said he’s used buses in the past, but they are not reliable enough. Often, he said, he has to resort to taking an Uber to get where he needs to go.
“Also, the disjointedness between DUMBO, Brooklyn Heights and the other rapidly developing areas is probably frustrating and hindering,” Hyman said. “A connection would probably, in my opinion, increase commercial opportunities and residential property value.”
The Williamsburg resident said he likes the route of the BQX, especially for an entire area of Greenpoint that doesn’t have enough mass transit.
“What is interesting to me is how to make the best use of the street,” he said, “and what kind of compromises the community wants or would be willing to accept.”